Chef Akhtar Nawabʼs parents immigrated to the United States from India in 1969. Theyʼve been celebrating Thanksgiving in Kentucky ever since.
Akhtar Nawab drops a fleck of flour into a pan of hot oil; it bubbles, so itʼs time. Beside him, his mother, Sahro, whom he calls “Ammi,” grabs pieces of dough from the master blob, rolls out small disks and passes them to her son, who drops them into the pan to fry. The dough puffs up and turns golden, transforming into the perfect puri. Even though Akhtar is a nationally recognized chef with four restaurants and counting, his mother runs the operation here, in the Louisville, Kentucky kitchen of her first-born son, Akbar, Akhtarʼs older brother. After all, it was Sahro who exposed her son to the flavors and techniques that would ultimately shape his culinary career. As a child, Akhtar always found his way into the kitchen, helping his mother to prepare his favorite childhood dishes, like keema matar (ground meat with peas, saffron and cumin), biryani and stewed oxtail.
At the puri assembly line on the kitchen counter, Sahro tells Akhtar that heʼs frying them all wrong; he disagrees. “He becomes a chef and then he doesnʼt listen to me!” she says, laughing and rolling out more dough.
“How old are you, 40? Still getting yelled at by your mother,” his brother calls out from the living room. Their father, Dr. Syed Mehdi Nawab, watches from the couch in amused silence.
Everyone is here at Akbarʼs home, located in a leafy suburban neighborhood in Louisville, where the two brothers grew up. Their parents left India for Chicago in 1969, where Mehdi had been offered a job as a cardiovascular surgeon. They moved to Milwaukee in ʼ71 and ultimately settled in Louisville two years later, where they all (mostly) remain today. Akhtar runs his restaurant empire from Manhattan, where his 12-year-old daughter, Ela, splits her time between him and her mother. He tries to return home whenever he gets an ever-elusive free moment. Often, he finds himself craving his motherʼs stewed cauliflower with black cumin and puri with potatoes and chicken biryani.
“Food was always a centerpiece for our family,” he says. “My mom was such a great cook. I remember she would make a biryani enriched with all these sweet spices—cinnamon, clove, cardamom—and then saffron and rosewater. It has all these interesting flavors that are compiled together and cooked in the same way a coq au vin would cook for hours, until itʼs just right.”
“Growing up, the kitchen enchanted him. As a child, he studied his mother carefully, helping her in whatever way he could. “I wasn’t really motivated by coursework in the way I think some of my other peers were,” he says. “The kitchen was the environment I was always most comfortable, where I always felt good.” He adored the dishes that his mother made, which she learned from her mother in her hometown of Lucknow in Northern India.
ooking in America wasnʼt always easy for Sahro, though Akhtar would never have guessed that from the delicious food he ate at the dinner table every night. When she first arrived in the 1970s, she was stunned by the lack of widely available fresh ingredients, a given in her hometown. Here, everything tasted different. She missed her motherʼs cooking.
“It was a shock when I came here,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, this milk doesnʼt taste the same!ʼ If you make this your home country, of course you adjust. You realize what differences you have to make to make the food palatable.”
She shifted her approach, opting for “more simple dishes instead of more exotic,” as she had trouble finding many of the ingredients that were ubiquitous back home. (But now with the growing Indian population in the Louisville area, she says she can find almost everything.)
While food was always integral to the Nawabs, both in India and Kentucky, the idea of making it a profession was … novel. When Akhtar decided he wanted to be a chef around age 20, his parents werenʼt too surprised—or pleased. “My mom was very supportive in the best way she could be, and I think it took my dad a little longer to accept it and appreciate it,” he says. (Mehdi came around when he saw his son on TV for the first time.)
Yet appreciate it they did, as their son climbed the ranks in the restaurant world—proving himself just as ambitious as his orthopedic surgeon brother and carving a path that was uniquely his own. Akhtar went to culinary school in 1994 and worked at restaurants in the Bay Area before migrating to New York City, where he trailed at Gramercy Tavern and later joined the opening team at Tom Colicchioʼs Craft and, in 2002, Craftbar. He first began dabbling with Mexican flavors around 2009. After the closure of his own concept, Elettaria, an Indian restaurant that was well-received but didnʼt survive the crashing of the market, he wanted to try something different. He reinvented himself through Mexican food, taking a culinary director position at La Esquina, where he worked for four years. There, he found the flavor profiles of Mexican and Indian cuisines to be quite similar—and harmonious when paired together.
In fact, one of the most distinctive aspects of Akhtarʼs culinary trajectory is his foray into Mexican cuisine. To him, the pivot made perfect sense. The slow-cooking techniques and layering of flavors that characterize the Indian food of his childhood, he says, have enormous parallels with Mexican cooking. This offered him an entry point. His latest restaurant, Alta Calidad in Brooklyn, draws from both Indian and Mexican influences.
“We do a roti there, which is an Indian peasant bread, but we enrich it with bone marrow, and thereʼs a guajillo salsa we make thatʼs really just a guajillo chutney,” Akhtar says. The salsa-chutney hybrid is seasoned with cumin and cloves and is enriched with raisins.
“It took hours to produce something very simple,” he says, of Mexican food. “It was a very intimate, passionate cuisine that I wouldnʼt say emulated Indian food, but it was a little like that because I found so many similarities between the preparation techniques. There are areas of Mexico that have this Muslim influence, and you found combinations there that were so familiar, some of those long-cooked dishes that were so similar.”
In March of 2017, Akhtar opened Alta Calidad, and he counts four locations of his fast-casual taco spot, Choza Taqueria, in New York and one in Birmingham, Alabama. In July he opened Fero, which serves Italian dishes inspired by the American south, in Birmingham, as well.
“I found a set of ingredients that worked with Mexican food, as well as Indian food; thereʼs cumin down there, thereʼs cinnamon, thereʼs all these familiar aromas that come together in a really harmonious way,” he says.
Those same aromas are floating around the kitchen, as Sahro rolls more puri dough, having recruited her three granddaughters to assist. Sheʼs been cooking for three days, as sheʼs hosting an extremely important crowd: her two sons, daughter-in-law, husband and four grandkids. Showing no signs of exhaustion, she beams. Everyone is happy that everyone is here, and Mehdi keeps trying to group everyone together for pictures. Sahro is whacking her granddaughters with the disks of dough, and theyʼre whacking back. For the Nawab family, gatherings around the table are precious, sacred.
When I ask Sahro what Thanksgiving means to her, she is silent for a few moments. Her eyes begin to water.
“Whatʼs so good is to just see the boys embrace their foundations,” she says. “Thatʼs whatʼs so good. The family values. The bond. The respect.”
I say she must be very proud of Akhtar and his success.
“Iʼm famous because of him! Because of my boys. Iʼm very proud,” she says. “Iʼm going to start crying again. Heʼs worked very hard for it. Very, very hard for it.”
Akhtar, too, gets emotional when talking about Thanksgiving, and what it means for three generations to gather around the table for a traditional Indian meal. He says heʼs most thankful for opportunity. He pauses to compose himself.
“Iʼm a single parent for my kid,” he says. “Itʼs really meaningful for us to get together and show her where I came from and how I chose to do something so different. That has great meaning.”
The dinner table is rambunctious and joyful, as the family debates the best strategies for passing the several dishes of meats and vegetables and rice and raita and puri around the table. After a prayer, everybody goes in.
“The traditional way is to eat with your hands,” Sahro explains, using puri to grab pieces of chicken, which she then dips in raita. “When you make a morsel like this, you just dip it. It coats it.” (The kids call these puriwrapped bites “puri burritos,” Mehdi says)
“Nowʼs your chance, Ela,” Akhtar says, teasing his daughter. “You can finally eat with your hands.” She smiles. On the other side of the table, her cousins debate when itʼs appropriate to start putting up Christmas decorations. “You have to wait until after Thanksgiving. Thatʼs just the way things are done.” “Nope. It starts in November.”
Throughout dinner, amid the teasing and laughing and scooping and dish-passing, Akhtar periodically rests his chin in his hand and looks around table, the very picture of “taking it all in.” He doesnʼt smile often, except when heʼs near daughter. Sheʼs the same way.
“Bringing her here to Louisville to spend time with my family is critical— she can see the way I grew up,” Akhtar says before everyone sits down. “She has a real interest in food. Itʼs interesting because I love all food, I just donʼt like bad preparations of them, but I think itʼs a little different with her. I think she has real interest in trying different things with me.”
He hasnʼt been back to India in years, but when he goes next, heʼll bring Ela. It will be her first time. “Iʼm not going back without her.”